Algernon Charles Swinburne's "Before Parting" relates a tale of lost love, a common theme in much Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthete and Decadent poetry. The qausi-cynical view of love that Swinburne presents in this poem is uncharacteristic, however. Unlike in "The Triumph of Time" and "Laus Veneris" the narrator doesn't pine torturously for his lost love. Instead, the poem describes the transient nature of romantic love without the overlay of longing:
Once yet, this poor one time; I will not pray
Even to change the bitterness of it,
The bitter taste ensuing on the sweet,
To make your tears fall where your soft hair lay
All blurred and heavy in some perfumed wise
Over my face and eyes.
Instead of flowing and golden, the lover's hair is "blurred and heavy" indicating a feeling of annoyance and emotional detachment. Swinburne spoke rather cynically of "Before Parting" in a letter to Joseph Knight in July of 1875: "In an age when all other lyrists, from Tennyson to Rossetti, go in (metrically) for constancy and eternity of attachment and reunion in future lives, etc., etc., I limit love, honestly and candidly, to 24 hours" (quoted by Landow, Victorian Web.) Swinburne clearly reflects this curt, somewhat pessimistic view of love in "Before Parting." The narrator of the poem clearly acknowledges that an attachment existed at one point and wonders at the evanescence of these feelings, but still lacks intense emotionality in his wondering:
I know each shadow of your lips by rote,
Each change of love in eyelids and eyebrows;
The fashion of fair temples tremulous
With tender blood, and colour of your throat;
I know not how love is gone out of this,
Seeing that all was his.
Swinburne's language does not entirely lack emotionality or attachment. He writes a beautiful description of seeing "Each change of love in eyelids and eyebrows;" and "The fashion of fair temples tremulous." These descriptions remain unsentimental, however. Though described in detail, even slightly romantically, the poem doesn't contain any of the heart-wrenching feelings of woe and yearning that is so common in contemporary love poetry. The poem concludes with: "And love, kissed out by pleasure, seems not yet/ Worth patience to regret." The sweetness of this love has turned bitter in a seemingly short period of time and rather than lament the loss, Swinburne treats it with a realistic and matter-of-fact detachment.
1. The first stanza in the poem begins with the line "A month or twain to live on honeycomb." The final stanza starts with "I know not how this last month leaves your hairÉ" Swinburne doesn't make it clear what happened between the lovers and it's left up to the reader to figure out the details. What relevance does the reference to time in the poem have? What do you think caused the sweetness of their love to turn bitter? Are the exact circumstances of the lovers relevant, or can the poem be read and understood without constructing a narrative?
2. In the last lines of the fourth stanza, Swinburne writes: "I know not how love is gone out of this,/ Seeing that all was his." The poem is written in first person directly addressing the other lover, so the introduction of a third party seems odd. To whom does this "his" refer and what is his relevance?
3. In "The Triumph of Time" the narrator laments loss love when he speaks in the third stanza:
It will grow not again, this fruit of my heart,
Smitten with sunbeams, ruined with rain
The singing seasons divide and depart,
Winter and summer depart in twain.
It will grow not again, it is ruined at root,
The bloodlike blossom, the dull red fruit;
Though the heart yet sickens, the lips yet smart,
With sullen savour of poisonous pain.
Compare Swinburne's treatment of lost love here to that in "Before Parting." How are language and poetic style used to portray different moods and feelings regarding loss?
4. Like many of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poems, the object of the poem, presumably a female lover, has no voice in "Before Parting." How does Swinburne's silencing of the lover compare with the often-objectified females in Rossetti's poetry? What effect does a voiceless female have on a poem like "Before Parting" or "The Blessed Damozel", for example?